Not Sinking But Crashing: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out thirty years ago today. Blake Backlash suggest you read what he wrote about it… or Anything Goes.

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Some things in this world are almost impossible to control: runaway mine cars, excitable nightclub singers, pilotless planes, one’s lust for fortune and glory, elephants.

Films, too. Steven Spielberg thinks he lost control of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He thinks the film slipped right through his fingers – so much so that he stopped thinking of it as his film at all. ‘There’s not an ounce of my own personal feeling in Temple of Doom,’ he said in 1989. He and George Lucas had wanted the second Indiana Jones film to be darker than the first. Lucas thought that had worked with The Empire Strikes Back and would work again. But when Spielberg looked back at what he had made, he thought he saw something overly shadowed and grisly. He called it ‘too dark, too subterranean, and much too horrific.’ It’s as if he felt the film turned sick from lack of sunlight –  that it spent so much time underground it ended up warped and ugly and Steven could no longer love it.

Well, I’ll love it if he won’t. For me it’s a film defined by excitement, heightened till it becomes exquisite joy. For all Spielberg’s regret, the way he talks about the film is suggestive of what makes it live in my mind. Too dark, too subterranean, and too horrific? You never told me you spoke my language, Dr Jones. There may be too much of a lot of things in Temple of Doom – but it’s this willingness to go too far that gives the film its kick. After all, it opens with a song rhapsodising lack of restraint.

Everyone who writes about Temple of Doom has to say something about Kate Capshaw, giving it laldy, singing Anything Goes in Mandarin. In fact, it has become a cliché to understand ‘anything goes’ as the film’s credo. For many of the critics who condemn the movie, those two words speak of a lack of taste that produced something incoherent, vulgar and brutish. But for me the phrase captures the way the film is exuberantly relentless, visceral and indulgent. Indulgent of its audience, rather than its filmmakers: for all that the film seems to be bursting at the seams at times, Spielberg assembles it with a disciplined formal precision. Anything Goes may be the opening number – but the first spoken words of dialogue are a whispered ‘Be careful’.

And Spielberg is meticulously careful about the techniques he employs to capture the exuberance and sprawl of his action scenes, even when they’re as busy as a cargo plane full of live poultry. He has a command of place and rhythm that means a narrative through line is maintained in even the busiest set-piece. The more I see the film, the more I am looking at how Spielberg gets away with it, just as much as Indy does. So part of the thrill of the first action scene is seeing how Spielberg keeps track of Indy, Willie, the diamond and the antidote, even as the scene gets more and more chaotic, with karate kicks, dancers and balloons pouring into the frame. And later when Indy jumps from Lao Che’s plane in a dinghy, Spielberg matches the ballsy-audaciousness of Indy’s stunt by capturing the exit, fall and landing of the dinghy in a single shot.

The film is full of striking camera movements, unexpected interplay between different parts of the frame, vivid use of light and shadow. Such stylistic dynamism feels like something shared between director and audience. This moment is as delicious as it is because of the way the camera movement and John Williams’s score conspire to make the joke work – and it’s a conspiracy the audience is included in, even while Indy remains clueless. There’s a wit and playfulness to how the film is shot and put together that tempers the dark tone.

The film is dark though. Indy escapes the Shanghai nightclub he’s in at the start of the film by crashing through a window, then falling to the streets below. And the dominant trajectory of the film is a movement down and into depths and peril.

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Indy falls from the sky, he falls off a waterfall, the ceiling comes down to crush him, Willie is lowered into a pit of lava. This last moment (literally as low as the film goes) may also the film’s darkest. After Indy, Willie and Short-Round descend into the Temple, it will be a long time before the audience sees sunlight again. And we also journey with them into a kind of emotive inner-darkness – because it’s Indiana Jones who lowers Willie into that lava. Indy is tortured and made to drink the Blood of Khali – a mini-McGuffin that turns goodies into baddies. And then we’re trapped in the Temple of Doom without a hero. While the threat is to Willie, most of these scenes are presented from Short-Round’s point-of-view.  As such, I think their power comes from how they tap into atavistic fears about the father figure as looming threat, rather than protector. The moment where Indy slaps Short-Round is more shocking and disturbing than seeing Willie nearly frazzled by that  lava because it pokes at the part of the gut that recoils from the idea of child abuse. Furthermore, it takes place among scenes featuring slave-children in chains being whipped by adult guards. Some very real-world, non-supernatural horrors are being evoked here.

It’s moments like these that have meant Temple of Doom has a reputation as the least respectable Jones film. It was first shown on British television in 1987, on Christmas Day. The next edition of Points of View featured numerous complaints about the BBC’s decision to show the film. Some people thought that human sacrifice, monkey-brains, and child slavery were wrong for the after Christmas-dinner slot.

It is such criticism of the horrific aspects of the film that Spielberg seems to have accepted. And it may be that the way it pulls both real-life and B-movie terrors from the darkness, then mixes them indiscriminately, is in bad taste. But I think a more tasteful film would not work as well. If it was only a bit dark, subterranean and horrific, the film would be less charged. Watching a depiction of adults being cruel to children provokes a visceral response. And that means later, when the slave children are freed, the surge of elation that starts to lift the film also comes from a deeply-felt place. The moment the children leave Pankot Palace is the first time in an hour the audience sees a shot lit by daylight. It is because we have dwelt so long in the darkness that we savour the relief when we leave the darkness behind.

It’s significant that those folk who complained to the BBC about Temple of Doom thought it wasn’t right for Christmas. Raiders had been shown on Christmas Day three years earlier, with much less fuss. It may be the whiff of Sunday School that makes Raiders respectable. God steps in at the end of the first three Jones films. At the climax of Raiders it’s an Old Testament God (powerful, angry, faceless). At the climax of Last Crusade, a New Testament God (understated taste in crockery, willing to delegate to an old-buffer with a white beard). But the God that saves the day at the climax of Temple of Doom is not part of Judaeo-Christian tradition at all.  Indy appeals directly to the Hindu God Shiva to help him.

It would be nice to follow that with a paragraph about how this prayer to Shiva is indicative of the way the film approaches Indian culture with an open and respectful attitude. But after Shiva has saved Indy’s white ass, Captain Blumburtt of the British Army shows up to (sort of) save the day as well, killing the last of Mola Ram’s Thugee guards. Both the score and the way Spielberg frames Blumburtt act as a kind of fanfare to his arrival. This veneration of colonial power – which comes close to celebrating the power of the strong over the weak – seems at odds with a film so innerved by the injustice of what was happening to those kidnapped children. While a more tasteful film might avoid such offenses, the film seems to me most problematic when it is trying to be polite. Farihah Zaman, who admits to something like a soft spot for the film, has wittily dismantled the film’s depiction of 1930s India. She notes that ‘for each over-the-top sequence of oriental splendor played for laughs, there is an entirely sincere and therefore far more insidiously offensive depiction of Indian people’.

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Now, I will admit that by the time the end of Temple of Doom comes around, I’m often so caught up in the adventure that my heart does lift when Indy returns the Sankara Stone to the happy, grateful villagers. At the same time there is an uncomfortable awareness that this is a story that tells us that the gentle, meek non-White people need to be helped and defended by White people, to save them from the bad, powerful non-White people. That’s a story we have heard before and since, and from politicians as often as from filmmakers.

Compared to that, the film’s ghost train depiction of the Thugee cult seems more ridiculous than offensive, drawing as it does a kind of one-size-fits-all Otherness. As Zaman points-out, this means some elements of the film’s version of India are strange, racially-charged non-sequiturs. They seem so removed from reality that they cannot even be called stereotypes. A Maharajah using a voodoo doll? That’s borrowing a bit of clichéd villainy from a completely different culture. It’s as if a film set in England showed a villainous city gent, in his suit and bowler hat, tying a woman to the railroad tracks.

But at least the Thugee, unlike the villagers, are shown to have some agency and ambition. In this regard, the film is blessed by a great performance from Amrish Puri as Mola Ram. He plays a villain, but for me he is one of the film’s heroes. He doesn’t appear until an hour into the film, and only has a handful of lines but he makes a lasting impression. The other Jones films tend to feature villains defined by either brute strength or intellect. Puri plays Mola Ram as having both, whether or not the character was written that way. There’s a great bit when he’s making a Bond-villain like speech to a tied-up Indy. He starts to talk about why he needs kidnapped children to dig in his mines and, as he delivers the line, Puri lays a friendly, sinister hand on Short Round’s head. Later when Indy threatens to drop the Sankara Stones off a rope-bridge, Mola Ram responds like this: ‘Ha ha ha. Drop them Dr Jones! They will be found! Ha ha ha. You won’t!’ Puri has a famously great malevolent laugh and his eyes shift in a split second between mockery and rage.

But I cannot write about heroic performances in the film without mentioning Kate Capshaw. Willie Scott has to spend most of the first third of the film in a state of highly-pitched whining and hysteria. At the time of release, and subsequently critics found this abrasive. It seems unfair that the actress has been subjected to scorn more often than the filmmakers. When things calm down, Capshaw is great. She brings a believable chemistry to the scenes she has with Harrison Ford and Jonathan Ke Quan’s Short Round. And when all three of them are together – like the scene that takes place in the jungle after Willie asks Indy ‘So where did you find your little bodyguard?’ – she brings out the best in the other two. Capshaw also enjoys herself when her character rejects Dr Jones’s romantic advances – she has a glint in her eye when she tells him she’d be safer sleeping with a snake and is suitably imperious when she throws him out of her bedroom. And the way she plays the last scene implies that, while she is willing to enjoy having him around, when he’s around, she has no intention of staying with Indiana Jones after they get back to America.

She may be at her best singing Anything Goes. Spielberg, may be at his best too. Let’s have a look at it:

After that first cut away from the man striking the gong, Spielberg holds his next, rather complicated, shot for over a minute. Kate Capshaw looks great as she emerges from that dragon’s mouth, framed by her dancers, resplendent in her dress of red and gold (from Paris). I love that quick one-two punch of a double-whammy Verfremdungseffekt with Capshaw standing in front of the film’s title, when it appears on-screen, just before she starts to sing a familiar song in an unfamiliar language (even if you’re a Mandarin speaker, her somewhat mangled pronunciation might be enough to wrong-foot you). I love the way, as Capshaw gets closer to us, the choreography finds her framed by those dancers ten different ways. She and the camera get more intimate with one another until we are close enough to catch her wink at us, just before she steps into a close-up, eyes shining, and delivers the final ‘Anything Goes!’.

I find it impossible not to have some love for a film that opens like that. The film’s reputation seems to have grown in the last thirty years, no doubt as the people who first saw it as children grow-up and start to write articles like this one. But you guessed something like that was going on, right? I struggle to keep critical distance from this film because around thirty years ago my Dad changed my life by taking me to see it. It may not have been the first film I saw in the cinema but it’s the first film I can remember seeing in the cinema. So it isn’t just as an example of the kind of blissful excitement cinema can make blossom inside you: for me it defines that kind of excitement. Not caring about it would be like not caring about films. I want to tell you about one last great bit, one that comes near the start of the film in that Shanghai nightclub. After Indy’s friend Wu Han is shot, he falls dying into Indy’s arms. Wu Han is played by David Yip, and he delivers his last line brilliantly. ‘I’ve followed you on many adventures,’ he says, ‘but into the great unknown mystery… I go first, Indy!’ When it’s my time to die, if I still know what I’m doing and who I am, I may not be able to resist trying to make those words my last words. Here’s hoping the people that are there with me love the film enough to get what I’m up to.

6 thoughts on “Not Sinking But Crashing: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

  1. This is so great, and makes me feel bad for doing it down in the years since watching it – at the cinema, yes, though the first film EYE remember is Return of the Jedi – as I genuinely loved it at the time. When’s it on telly next?

  2. I maintain that this is the best of the sequels – some complained that it kept going without letting up, a “criticism” I wish applied to the one with Indy’s dad and the one with Henry Jones III.

  3. This is a really terrific piece of writing. I saw the film at the cinema too – though I was well into my twenties, it sent me out into the street on a high, and I still remember the breathless wonder of that opening sequence, and the amazement that – outrageous as it was – it wasn’t the most outrageous thing in the film. Like the first Indy movie, the film is rooted in disreputable genres, an influence Spielberg has always had trouble wholeheartedly embracing, but he’s never seemed to be having as much fun as he’s having here.

  4. Thanks for saying nice things everyone. Things I left out: some people attribute the film’s dark tone to the fact Spielberg and Lucas were both going through bad breakups when they made it (not sure I buy this). And the original draft of the script attributed more of the baddies badness to them all being under the Black Sleep of Khali. Even Mola Ram (!) at the end, when he burned his hand on the stone was seen to look as if he had awakened and had turned good.Then Indy tried to save him but he fell in the gorge anyway.

  5. A great piece; I still remember seeing TOD at the age of 14 in a tiny cinema in Tralee Ireland while on a bus holiday there. In my mind, it’s far superior to the later “Last Crusade” _because_ it allows that darkness in.

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